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'You Think That's Bad'? Jim Shepard On Catastrophe13:32
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In Jim Shepard's new collection of short stories, the Massachusetts based writer takes his readers on quite a journey. From troubled marriages and the world of black ops to high mountain avalanche research in the Swiss Alps and the interior landscape of 20th-century explorer Freya Stark.

Shepard's short stories are about some very big subjects. They compress history, conflict and personal questing into tight narratives. He uses the first person voice and inhabits a variety of personalities, first-person identities and points of view.

This is Shepard's fourth collection of stories, and it's called "You Think That's Bad."

Guest:

  • Jim Shepard, author, "You Think That's Bad"; professor of English, Williams College

More:

  • Jim Shepard at Newtonville Books June 14, Harvard Bookstore June 15

Book Excerpt
"You Think That's Bad" (PDF)
By Jim Shepard

Happy with Crocodiles

Her envelope had hearts where the o’s in my name should have been and I tore it open and read her letter right there in the sun. The V-Mail was like onionskin and in the humidity you spent all your time peeling sheets apart and flapping them dry. Two guys who’d been waiting behind me for their mail passed out and fell over. Our CO had orders to keep everyone under some sort of shade until further notice. That was it in terms of his responsibilities for the day. But the mail hadn’t caught up to us since Port Moresby so even this one load pulled most of us out around the truck.

The guy next to me spat on the back fender just to watch it sizzle. As far as we could tell, we were the only four companies not getting any beach breezes, and we’d been sitting through this for two weeks and were pretty much wiped out to a man. Guys just lay in the bush with their feet sticking out onto the trail. The Bren gun carrier already looked like a planter, it was so overgrown. Almost nothing was running because the lubricating oils ran off or evaporated. We’d lost half our water when the heat dissolved the jerry cans’ enamel lining. Two unshaded shells farther down the trail had exploded. The tents accumulated heat like furnaces. The midday sun raised blisters on an arm in ten minutes. One of the medics timed it. Everybody lost so much fluid and salt that we had ice-pick headaches or down-on-all-fours dry heaves and cramping. Turning your head wasn’t worth the effort. Pickets got confused and shot at anything. A few facing the afternoon sun on the water went snowblind from the glare and didn’t bother to report it until relieved.

At least the Japs were lying low, too. I had a palm-frond bush hat but even through that the sun beat on my head like a mallet.

The first paragraph was all about how good it was to hear I was okay. It made her whole day easier, apparently. The second said “To answer your question, no, I didn’t see your brother when he was home on leave.” But he’d already written that she had. And then he’d left it at that.
“Get out of the sun, Foss,” the CO called.

One of the guys who’d passed out came to and staggered back to his tent. The other guy just lay there. The guy behind me got handed a Christmas package, but whatever was in it was smashed flat and melted besides. He picked over it standing in the truck cab’s shadow.

The PFC dishing out the mail was clearly hacked off that he had to do it right there on the trail. There was one good patch of shade from a clump of coconut palms and no one was budging out of it to let him park his truck. He called a name and if someone didn’t answer right away he pitched the letter or package over the side and went on to the next one. He was wearing a bush helmet and on the back of it someone had drawn a woman with her legs spread and written “Your Mother Says Hi” across the brim.

The third paragraph went on to something else as though that was the end of it. So-and-so said such-and-such about a friend of hers, could I believe that?

“What do you need, a road map?” my friend Leo said when I asked him about it.

“What?” I asked, like I already knew. “What do you think you think is going on?”

“What do I think I think is going on?” he asked, and the rest of Dog Company, a little ways farther off the trail, laughed. We’d heard that Baker and Fox Companies had been bombed with daisy cutters the night before, so we were working on two-man slit trenches, and in the close quarters entrenching tools kept whipping by people’s ears. “I think the two of them spend a lot of time agreeing on what a great guy you are. I think it makes them sad for you and they cry together in their beer. And then I think he’s sticking his dick in her.”

“What’s wrong with him?” our staff sergeant asked Leo while we redug our slit trenches the next morning. As if everybody else was the picture of contentment. If it rained at all during the night we lost like a foot and a half of depth to the mud.

“He’s jealous of his brother,” Leo told him.

“His brother better-lookin’ than him?” the staff sergeant asked, amused.

“I’ve seen knotholes better-lookin’ than him,” Leo told him.

“Why would he think it was about looks?” I asked him later.

“Why wouldn’t he think I was jealous of something else?”

“Where the heck is chow?” Leo wondered. Guys were milling around the bivouac, waiting. You could always tell when a hot meal was late, because everybody started acting like zoo animals.

We were the Second Battalion, 126th Infantry, 32nd Division, Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard, here in New Guinea all of fourteen days and—leave it to the Army—apparently the spearhead of General MacArthur’s upcoming drive to dislodge what everyone agreed were two divisions of the world’s most fearsome jungle fighters from one of the world’s most impenetrable jungles.

Two of us hadn’t hit puberty yet. Three of us couldn’t see without our glasses, and our hygiene officer couldn’t see with them. Before this, only one of the Wisconsin guys had been out of the state. We were fifteen miles from the nearest hut and a hundred and fifty from the nearest civilization, in the form of the mostly uninhabited northeastern Australian coast. We were ten thousand miles from home.

To read more of "You Think That's Bad" download the book excerpt in PDF form.

This program aired on May 27, 2011.

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